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The perfect road trip song

Lighting Out | During a stop in ‘Nash-Vegas,’ I had coffee with singer/songwriter and novelist Andrew Peterson

FRANKLIN, Tenn.—The next stop on our way west was in Nashville and, interestingly, we ran into the Overmountain Men again. It turns out that a group from the same Overmountain Men who helped win the Revolutionary War Battle of King’s Mountain also helped found Fort Nashborough in 1779. They named it after Francis Nash, one of the few Continental Army generals to die in the war.

Nashville grew quickly because of its strategic location along the Cumberland River and, later, as a railroad center. By the time the Civil War came around, it was a prosperous city and an important prize when it became the first state capitol to fall to Union troops in the Battle of Nashville in late 1864.

After the Civil War, the river and the railroads made Nashville prosperous again, but the city is best known today for its contributions to the popular music industry. In the 1970s and 1980s Nashville passed Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans to become second only to New York in music publishing and recording. More than 20,000 people make a living in the Nashville music business, and the economic impact of the industry on the city exceeds $6 billion. 

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One musician who has operated successfully on the fringes of, or even outside, the Nashville music industry—sometimes derisively called “Nash-Vegas”—is Andrew Peterson. I met Peterson at a Starbucks in Franklin, a sleepy town too far south of Nashville even to be a suburb until the 1970s. When the music business first exploded in Nashville, it was mostly country music. Some of the industry’s nouveau riche began looking for land on which to build their mansions and keep enough cattle and horses to maintain their country bona fides. A then newly completed Interstate 65 suddenly made Franklin accessible, so it became the exurb of choice. Between 1980 and 2000, Franklin’s population more than tripled, and the median household income there is more than $90,000, making it one of the most affluent towns in America.

I say all of that to make the point that in some ways there could be no more unlikely place to meet Andrew Peterson than in a Starbucks in Franklin. He is, in many ways, the antithesis to whatever stereotype “Starbucks in Franklin” brings to mind. He grew up a preacher’s kid in Florida, and went to a Bible college so small contemporary Christian artists rarely visited. “When I started, I didn’t know there was a Christian music industry,” he told me. But he did have a community of family and friends around him who told him what he was doing had merit. He also had a growing set list of songs, and a musical hero: Rich Mullins, someone who also operated mostly outside the Christian music industry. “In the early days, I covered a lot of Rich Mullins songs,” he said. 

Peterson’s music eventually came to the attention of Derek Webb of the Christian band Caedmon’s Call. Webb asked Peterson to open for his band during its 1998 tour. “It was an incredibly generous gesture,” Peterson said. At the time, Caedmon’s Call was one of the biggest bands in contemporary Christian music. Peterson was an unsigned artist with only a self-produced album to his credit.

Quickly, though, Peterson signed with Watershed/Essential Records and his 2000 album Carried Along produced the Top 10 Christian radio hit “Nothing to Say.” More than a dozen albums followed, including his most recent, Light for the Lost Boy, which received a 2013 Dove Award nomination.

Peterson is also a novelist. He published the first novel in The Wingfeather Saga series in 2008. That book, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, received a Christie Award nomination in the young adult category. The fourth and final book in the series, The Warden and the Wolf King, is due out next month. Peterson used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of this novel. He had hoped to raise $14,000. The campaign ended up raising $118,000. “It was incredibly humbling,” Peterson said. He called the outpouring of support “one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.” He also said it gave him the funds to “really trick out the book. A lot more illustrations. We pulled out all the stops.”

And that brings me to why we met in this Starbucks in Franklin. This is where he wrote the books. Because I was recording our interview and taking notes, we sat at a table with normal straight-back chairs. But across the restaurant was a seating area with two overstuffed leather chairs. “I wrote right there,” Peterson said. “More than 500 pages.” And that’s just the fourth book in the series. All four of the books weigh in at well over 1,000 pages and more than a half-million words.

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